02/26/2004

Preliminary Thoughts on “The Passion of the Christ”

(SPOILERS GALORE)



I saw The Passion of the Christ today around noon and overall I really enjoyed it. This review is detailed and gives a blow-by-blow account of the movie and mixes description with analysis. My memory was greatly helped by the post-viewing conversation I had with Jeff Meyers and Chris Smith over coffee. We reminded each other of the various important aspects of the movie and the things that we wanted to remember and analyze. A lot of the points below were made first by them and I just roll them in with my own thoughts, but I take responsibility for the way things are expressed; they might not agree with all that I’ve written.

The Most Violent Movie Ever?

First off, I can’t believe that Ebert views this movie as the most violent movie he has ever seen. I left Passion thinking that it really wasn’t that violent or disturbing; the “gluttony” segment from Seven and the battle scenes in Gangs of New York are more disturbing. Fight Club contained sadistic violence that was much more disturbing to me. It helps that I’ve been a churchgoer my entire life so I’ve had plenty of time to envision crucifixion, flogging, etc. and how it might go. I can imagine that if Gibson decides to film the book of Judges or something that it would be amazingly violent, but after living in the church my whole life, getting a Masters of Divinity and taking the Christology courses, and seeing all the prepress on the movie, the violence wasn’t that shocking. I was able to really focus on the cinematography, the pacing, the art direction, and the theological and symbolic choices made without being distracted by torment over the violence.

Garden of Gethsemane

The movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is praying, and the writers interestingly chose to use Psalm phrases throughout his prayers. The environment is foggy and dark, and there were some chromatic problems around the edges of the trees (reddish hues creeping in). This could have been a problem with the projection system at the AMC Theatre where I viewed the movie. There were similar problems the last time I saw a movie with near black-and-white scenes. Jesus is praying standing up – a good choice on the part of the director. Obviously he is trying to stay awake and standing/kneeling are the two postures for prayer used throughout the Bible. Jesus leaves his prayer spot to scan the garden and he wakes the disciples (Peter and others) who are sleeping. Jesus is gruff and manly – he rebukes them and they are ashamed to be asleep. Jesus goes back to his prayer spot and this is where the Satan character enters.

To personify Satan, the film features a woman with no eyebrows or hair in a black cloak. The NPR reviewer today (Mondello) called this a “stock horror character” unfairly, I think. There was a beauty about the face, but a creepiness about the rest. I could see her/him in a Marilyn Manson video with the kind of stark gender-bending imagery he uses. At one point as Satan is taunting Jesus, a mealworm darts out of his nose and back in. Then as Jesus kneels in prayer, bleeding from his pores due to fright (not fright at Satan, but rather at what he knew was coming), a snake emerges from Satan’s robes and heads toward Jesus. I just “knew” from the Biblical imagery that Jesus was going to crush the serpent’s head (in the Garden – good touch, eh?). But the ferocity of the stomp was great. The sound startled me, and it was a really forceful stomp on the head of the snake.

Cut to Judas negotiating for 30 pieces of silver. The high priests throw the silver his way and the bag breaks open. He kneels before his money to regather it and a gruff Jewish soldier asks where Jesus is. The movie portrays the Jewish soldiers as kind of Roman-wannabes. They have authority in a certain realm but they must submit to the Roman rule in most non-religious matters. The soldiers march off to find Jesus. When they arrive at the garden, Jesus asks for whom they are looking. The film portrays Judas as reticent to fulfill his promise to the soldiers and they force him to kiss Jesus. When the soldiers seize Jesus, all hell breaks loose as the disciples begin to wrestle with the guards. Peter’s lopping off of Malchus’ ear is the climax of the fight and after Jesus heals Malchus’ wound, the soldier is unable to get up; he is in a kneeling position and is just stunned at being healed. Three or four soldiers have Peter (who, incidentally, looks just like N.T. Wright with a fuller beard) pinned up against a tree. When Jesus tells him to drop the sword, he does it and one of the soldiers takes a solid punch at Peter’s jaw – nice touch, really.

Trial before Caiaphas

As the soldiers march the chained Jesus back to the court of the chief priests, they momentarily push him over the side of a bridge and he bangs against the wall before they lift him back up. While down there, Judas can be seen skulking down there, mourning. Just as Judas gets up to sneak away, a demon flashes by, taking the audience by surprise. The Gospels record that “Satan entered Judas” and the presence of demons is an interesting touch. Remember that the Gospels often portray Jesus entering an area during his teaching ministry and everywhere there are demon-possessed people; demons talking to him, etc., so this is pretty consistent with the biblical accounts. Judas is tormented; his lips begin to nearly rot throughout the rest of his appearances in the film. At Jesus’s trial, Judas is obviously grieving about it and outside of the court, some kids begin to taunt him. Here, there is humor as Judas curses at the children and the children respond “He curses; perhaps he is cursed”. This is realistic script writing in that we find plays on words like this throughout ancient literature. The demon-children are not real, however, and their faces contort into grotesque humans who taunt him and a band of them drive him into the desert where Judas grabs a robe around the rotting corpse of dead livestock and hangs himself.

Back to Jesus and the trial – the soldiers proudly march him into the court of the Priests. Here, it is clear that not all the Priests are with Caiaphas, but the dissenters are silenced. The soldiers mock Jesus and hit him occasionally, with a lot of showy power-tripping. The film does a good job of capturing the significance of Jesus answering “I AM” to the question of whether he is the Son of God (picking up on the Old Testament name of God – “I am that I am”). That his statements would be blasephemous to the priests is clear and Caiaphas tears his robes convincingly. The costume design here was excellent – both for the Jewish soldiers and for the Priests and assistants.

Pilate

Pilate’s portrayal comes next. He is neat and clean. His wife is sympathetic to Jesus. Before Pilate, the high priests speak only Aramaic, but Jesus speaks to Pilate in his language (an interesting touch). Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, trying to avoid having to make a decision.

Herod the Strange

An explanatory note is in order – Herod Antipas is the son of Herod the Great. He is known historically to have done a lot of crazy things, and Gibson makes some interesting choices in the portrayal here. Herod has eyeliner, a strange wig and a court of people and jesters dressed in Egyptian themed garb. It is clearly an attempt to portray Herod as idealizing what every pious Jew would abhor – the Egypt which enslaved them. Herod is out of sorts here and is debauched. His court resembles a Tubes concert or one of Jane’s Addiction’s early stage shows. Herod sends Jesus away and the priests bring him back to Pilate. The message of the film is clear – the Jewish leadership is betraying Jesus and betraying its own people. Herod is not a good shepherd, the priests are not good shepherds. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and an effective flashback later in the movie occurs when Jesus looks up while hanging on the cross at Caiaphas and has a flashback to the Sermon on the Mount’s phrase “I am the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep”. Gibson is making the Jewish leadership the enemy, in line with the Gospel accounts, not Jews simpliciter. More on the allegations of anti-semitism later, however.

Back to Pilate

Pilate has a side conversation with his wife, mulling over the concept of “truth” that he discussed with Jesus. Pilate wraps up the conversation with a pragmatic point – the only truth that matters for him is that he can’t have a rebellion led by Caiaphas and still be in Caeser’s good stead.

Pilate orders Jesus to be punished (flogged) and this begins what some see as the bloodiest portion of the movie. The flogging scene is effective. There are no translations provided of the Latin of the soldiers, but if you’ve had any Latin, you’ll understand that they’re just saying a lot “do this, do that” kind of things, with the occasional “that’s enough” from the leader of the floggers. Flogging is a bloody thing and Jesus’ flesh tears and bruises under the metal attachments to the whipping tool. Pilate’s wife enters the scene, unable to look at Jesus, but brings white towels to Mary. Jewish burial customs involve wiping up the blood and other body parts of the deceased to bury everything all together. You might have seen NYPD blue last week when the murdered Jeweler’s wife asks for his blood to be sopped up before they bag him. This is just Jewish custom, who knows if it really existed in the first century, but it is an interesting touch that I thought merited explanation; there is no Roman Catholic imagery here in the sopping up of the blood.

Side Note on Nuance of Characters

Here, you’ll notice the way the movie tries to avoid caricatures in its portrayals of any group. The Romans are of all kinds. The floggers are fiery tempered idiots; you’ve hung out with people just like this in high school. Their teeth are poor, they are strong, and they play off of one another to be more brutal than the other. Above that is the bureaucrat who oversees the flogging. Only slightly higher in rank, and older and less animated. Above him is Pilate’s right hand man who is constantly doing his duty but is not really carrying out this sentence with a lot of delight. His teeth are much better than the lower end soldiers. Then comes Pilate with his shaved head and very clean look, along with his servants who are also very clean and shaven. Pilate’s wife looks like the wife of a Roman Patrician, beautiful and clean and well-dressed. Some of the soldiers are pensive around the crucifixion scene and they are interesting mirrors of the situation, often communicating with their glances that they know something is wrong with the proceedings.

The Jews are similarly portrayed. Jesus and the disciples, along with Mary and Mary Magdalene are kind and loyal. Some of the high priests are sympathetic characters, genuinely concerned about Jesus’ blasphemy. Some are conniving. Some are in favor of Jesus’ innocence, his status as a prophet. Then there are the soldiers – brutal, delighting to have important work, trying hard to keep their activities from the Romans. The Jewish crowd is portrayed in a complex manner. Yes, the call for Barabbas to be freed, and, incited by Caiaphas, call for Jesus’ crucifixion, but many of them are horrified to see Jesus after the flogging, with hamburger meat for skin. They also are horrified by Barabbas, and spit on him as he enters the crowd, realizing what scum he is. The character of Simon (who aids Jesus in his portage of the Cross) is a wonderful antidote to the notion that the movie is somehow anti-semitic. He is reviled by the Roman soldiers for being a Jew, and yet he helps Jesus carry the cross after being initially reticent to get involved. A great irony comes in his brief speech to the soldiers. He’s probably scared that he’ll get flogged too, and so says something to the effect of “Hey, just keep in mind that I’m the innocent man here and I’m helping the guilty man carry his cross”. Really effective stuff there.

Trip to Golgotha

The various stations of the cross are observed on the way to the mount where Jesus is crucified. The only extracanonical thing is St. Veronica offering water to Jesus and wiping his face with a cloth. Protestants won’t even really notice that, and it’s no big deal, just a kind lady in the crowd. The “stations of the cross” are not really a part of my piety, as a Protestant, but it doesn’t consist of much more than a lot of scriptural phrases paired with a certain way of narrating Jesus’ passion.

Throughout Jesus’ torture and the path to the cross, he has flashbacks to his youth (his profession as carpenter), and to the last supper – the washing of the disciples feet, etc. There are also flashbacks to speeches (probably the Sermon on the Mount, though keep in mind that Jesus probably gave similar sermons on multiple occasions) These are effective in many ways in telling the story and showing where Jesus’ mind goes during these beatings. Looking at the foot of a Roman flogger reminds him of washing feet before the upper-room meal.

The most grotesque portrayal of Satan is during the flogging scene where Satan is almost nursing some kind of creepy baby with an old man’s face. I think we are supposed to be repulsed and titillated at the same time with this display of inauthentic nurture. I haven’t quite figured out the symbolism of the demon baby thing, but I’ll think about it some more.

Crucifixion

The crucifixion itself is fairly graphic. Jesus flashes back to the breaking of the bread, and just as he raises it with his hand to show the disciples, his cross is raised up. This plays with the imagery of the “elevation of the host” – something that happens during the Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, but something that could just as easily be done by any Christian church in its Eucharistic liturgy to follow the imagery of the “son of man being lifted up” and the posting of the snake on the pole (from Exodus), etc. Really effective association of the crucifixion with the memorial of that death that Christians are commanded to celebrate in the Eucharist each week. Keep in mind that, regardless of the content of ‘popular Catholicism’ the official dogma presents the Eucharistic ‘sacrifice” not as a re-sacrificing of Jesus, but rather as making the one sacrifice of Jesus present to the congregation and to God the Father as a memorial meal each week during the mass. And that’s the kind of theology that sacramentally-minded Protestants can accept with little modification.

A crow eats out the eye of one of the thiefs, and one of the most touching scenes of the movie comes when Jesus forgives the other thief and assures him of their being together in Paradise that day.

When Jesus says “into your hands I commit my spirit” and looks toward heaven, a nice touch is that his pupils widen as he dies. When they poke his side with a spear to be sure he is dead, the blood and water that flow out sprinkle over the head of the stunned soldier who kneels in the stream. A single drop comes from the rain clouds and though momentarily cheesy (as if a tear from heaven) when it hits the ground, all hell breaks loose in a cosmic sense. An earthquake begins that culminates in the rending in two of the temple veil. The veil is portrayed a little too small, for my taste.

After Jesus is lowered from the cross and is in Mary’s lap, the pose is very Pietà and her gaze into the camera is a little too protracted for my taste. It reminded me of scenes from the REM video for “Losing My Religion” where poses are held. But that is a small defect. Another editing defect occurred during the crucifixion scene – when cutting to another angle at one point, the actors change position slightly. The point of the Pia scene is really to point a finger at the audience, further diffusing any kind of obsession with hating the immediate first-century agents of Christ’s death. “You killed him with your sin,” Mary’s eyes say to the audience.

Good Choices

Gibson made a lot of interesting choices in this film. The casting was excellent. When Peter catches Jesus’ eye after denying him in the court hubbub is almost tearjerking. That scene is amazing. The biblical theology is good – Jesus crushes the head of the serpent in the Garden. Satan’s encouragement of the day’s events and then utter despair at the results is reminiscent of the “ransom to Satan theory” of the atonement popular in the early church. You really get a good sense, in this movie, that the disciples are nearly clueless about the real meaning of Jesus’ teachings. Mary, Peter, John, etc. are just groping for the truth in a dark room where occasionally an event will spark remembrance of Jesus’ remarks and make them well-lit. This fits well with the biblical account, and just really reinforces my belief that the Early Church, far from some kind of unchangeable model of practice and dogma, is really just the infant Church, in need of development and growth, thus not really privileging any kind of primitivist boast on the part of Eastern Christianity or the kind of “we were there from the beginning” approach of Roman Catholicism against Protestants who are late on the scene. The film portrays Pilate’s Barabbas-Jesus gambit as a solomonic diagnostic test on the resolve of the crowd to have Jesus crucified. The horrible and defiled Barabbas is so obviously deserving of punishment in comparison to Jesus that everyone who has no personal religious stake in the outcome (the Roman guards and Pilate’s attendants) are just flabbergasted at the choice to free Barabbas instead. Also the relationship between Rome and the Jews (which is known to be full of just these kinds of pushings back and forth) is portrayed well. There are other instances in historical accounts (Josephus, etc.) where we learn of Jews who hold swords to their own necks, threatening to kill themselves if they do not get justice on this or that issue from the Romans, such that the Romans relent in the matter even though they technically have authority over the Jewish people. The rebellion that could result if Jesus is not crucified is plausibly portrayed and Pilate settles for pragmatism; what does he care, after all, about a religious controversy among the Jews….

Is the Movie Too Roman Catholic?

A lot of Protestants have worried that the movie presents a very “catholic” Passion. I think these fears are not very justified. Yes, the extracanonical St. Veronica makes an appearance. Yes, Peter and John call Mary “mother”, but in John’s case, we all know that this is where the story heads anyway when Jesus tells Mary to adopt John and John to watch over Mary. Mary, though, is Jesus’ subject and mother throughout, not his queen. And after Peter’s denial, he is really absent from the script. If Gibson wanted to make Roman Catholic propaganda, surely he would have set Peter up as being more central to the life of the twelve as the first ‘pope’. The association between the crucifixion and the Eucharist is no big deal. That’s what the bible does, anyway. It is a memorial before the Father of Jesus’ death using elements related to his broken body and spilled blood. I’ve already dealt with the “elevation of the host” objection above.

The art direction of the movie takes account of the Christian visual art tradition and many scenes are framed after the manner of Renaissance and Medieval passion portrayals. But that is a positive aspect of the movie, not a negative one. Gibson doesn’t give us new and strange images to dwell on concerning the life of Jesus, he just brings to life images that we all have absorbed anyway. Most of the art was created before there were Protestants and Catholics anyway; a shared Western tradition of artistic reflection on the Passion is what predominates, not any kind of specifically counter-Reformation approach or something. Another important thing to remember is that those who are not Catholic will view the movie differently than those who are. Many aspects of Catholic life (the Sacred Heart theology, for instance) are present in the movie, but will be totally missed or re-interpreted by Protestants, and that’s a legitimate thing to do. It is a fallacy (the affective fallacy, among others) to assume that a piece of art can only mean what was intended by the artist or that the art always reveals the personal beliefs of the artist. When Mary tells Jesus that “your flesh is my flesh, your heart is my heart” and he responds “woman, your son (John)” a Protestant might simply remember Adam’s “you are woman, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” poem and not think of Sacred heart theology at all.

Will this movie ruin my imagination and ruin my reading of Scripture?

First of all, Caviezel as Jesus is not some kind of revolution in Jesus-portrayal. He is more manly, but he is just as much a “place-holder” as any Jesus I’ve seen in a movie. A month from now, I won’t be able to remember what he looked like as Jesus. People just don’t pay attention to the features of people whose faces are mostly obscured by a beard anyway. Further, Gibson didn’t choose people with especially big eyes (something common in icons where people attempt to read into gaping eyes their own thoughts) to portray Mary or Jesus or others. This movie just really can’t be an object of devotion in any way I can conceive of. If anything, the costumes of Roman soldiers and the Priestly garb will stick in your mind, and that kind of stuff is just extremely helpful – it fleshes out the historicity of the gospels for you. I think also that the Peter character will stick with me. I like the way he looked, and I think its as good as any image to use when I think of Peter.

Is the Movie Anti-Semitic?

Definitely not. But it would be interesting to go through a list of changes made to the Oberammergau passion play (a famous German passion play) in the wake of Jewish outspokenness against possible anti-semitism to see if Gibson broke those rules. One classic point of controversy is the way that the Oberammergau play featured the same crowd who welcomed Jesus with palms later crying “crucify him”. In the Gibson movie, as Jesus passes through the screaming and murderous crowd, he flashes back to the same folks holding palms, so I can see this being a concern to Jews who are sensitive to the historical role of passion plays in providing a convenient, emotional scapegoat for Nazis to use in support of their cause. I’m not worried that this movie will cause unrest in America. We just don’t have that kind of history beyond the kind of nativism that can be seen in the excellent movie Focus with regard to anti-semitism after WWII. But Europe continues to have problems with anti-semitic language and behavior, and I worry about the effect the movie may have when it is released there. Perhaps I should think better of Europeans, but I must confess a little bit of anti-European bias here – it comes from decades of watching late night comedians chip away at European eccentricity through easy jokes and of reading press reports of the shameful ethnic scapegoating used by various European politicians. But in general, the movie portrays the Jews as being a people full of complex individuals of various dispositions and motives. There are Jewish and Roman heros and villains throughout the movie, as there are heros and villains among all kinds of people. But the movie definitely portrays a supercession of Jewish religion in favor of Jesus-religion (Christianity) that many think is there in the Gospels themselves but which is often seen as anti-semitic by definition. The crucifixion is a cosmic event that ticks off Satan and rends the temple curtain. Nothing is ever to be the same again, so teaches the movie, and “the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven.” It wasn’t too hard to imagine Mel inserting a scene of the destruction of A.D. 70 at that point in the script, -- that’s how biblically / theologically astute the portrayal of the interaction between the priests and Jesus is.

Conclusion

Overall, this is just a movie. I didn’t cry, and it didn’t change my life, but it was worthy to be viewed and to be taken seriously. It made better biblical-theological and symbolic connections than probably 90% of the sermons preached in churches across America each Sunday, and in this way, it was educational and edifying. The key danger of the violence is that people will walk away thinking “poor Jesus”. But remember that lots of people have died grisly deaths worse than Jesus’ death. The difference with Jesus, in Christian theology, is that Jesus is sinless and deserves worship as God himself, and yet bore the sins of the world. Momentary earthly sufferings are horrible, but it was Jesus’ righting the cosmic problem wherein the world needed to be reconciled to God, given its rebellion, that is the most important aspect of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. The movie is well made; it is good art, and that in itself is to be commended in a day when most Christian art is embarrassing and schmaltzy (Thomas Kincaide rubbish). If you’re over the age of 15, you should definitely see the movie and then go read the backstory. Read about Herod Antipas. Get Josephus and read about the Roman/Jewish interactions. Read the Gospels and try to harmonize the four accounts and see what an interesting and creative job Mel Gibson did in writing the script; attempting to portray a particular perspective on the events that jives with the four canonical perspectives. Most of all, see the movie, for Pete’s sake, before you pan it.

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